In graduate school I taught a class on film. Or more precisely, I taught a composition class in which a film unit formed the basis of the course. It was structured loosely around questions of monstrosity, and subtitled, “Fear, Desire, & The Other.” I was in school to study poetry, and I had very little teaching experience, and even less experience talking about film in an academic setting. In the week-long training period required to teach this class, I was told to select two films that would fit into the general theme of my course. The first film I chose—a film I included on my syllabus for the rest of my tenure as an instructor—was Teeth.
For the unfamiliar, Teeth is a black comedy about a girl who discovers she has teeth in her vagina when assaulted by a high school classmate. In one of its more unforgettable scenes, a severed penis is eaten by a Rottweiler as its previous owner screams shrilly in the background. Despite its subject matter, Teeth is less sexually explicit than most movies, but I took the extra step of asking permission from the department head before finalizing my syllabus, and offered students the chance to opt out of viewing the film. In the three years I taught Teeth, not one student took me up on my offer.
I could have chosen an easier film, but I wanted to teach this one because it broached fascinating issues. Men’s bodies as the target of sexualized violence. Eco-horror. Purity culture. Power. Gender. Why female bodies and female desire are so often seen as monstrous. Why we laugh at violence. At times I thought the movie was a brilliant dark comedy; at others I thought it was hilariously bad, its symbolism too on the nose. The fact that I could never decide one way or the other made me think it was the former.
An early scene in Teeth takes place in a classroom. Student textbooks are open to a diagram of female genitalia that has been covered almost entirely with a large foil sticker. “Why are they covering it up?” a girl asks, “They showed the penis picture.” “That should be obvious,” the teacher replies.
“It’s funny that there is so much fear around female sexuality,” a student of mine volunteered when we discussed the scene in class, “when it’s men who are so often monsters.”
Her comment gets at the heart of the tensions in the film: Teeth skewers social and cultural mores that contribute to the demonization of female sexuality.
When the film opens, Dawn O’Keefe (played by Jess Weixler) is giving a talk to a group of wide-eyed teenagers about maintaining “the most precious gift of all” for one’s spouse. Dawn wears a promise ring and a t-shirt reading “Love Waits.” Though religion is never explicitly mentioned or addressed in the film, this plot point invokes the purity and modesty movements popular among young Christian evangelicals and their families. This is a movement that is all too easy to disparage, as anyone who has watched footage of purity balls—where pre-pubescent girls pledge their virginities to their fathers’ safekeeping—can attest to. But Dawn’s commitment to sexual “purity” isn’t merely served up for easy laughs. It highlights the dark irony of a movement whose attendants don’t always practice what they preach (Dawn is raped by a boy she meets in her youth group, who also wears a promise ring on his left hand). It also makes clear that there is not much distance between the politics of “purity,” as practiced by Dawn early in the film, and everyone else, as the science teacher makes clear. “I’m not just talking to the girls,” Dawn concludes her speech on chastity, but it’s obvious that she is.
Like many, I have felt keenly what it means to be a girl, and the sexual double-standards that come along with it, though my experience does not conform totally to the grim experience of girlhood and sexuality as portrayed in Teeth. I was raised in the Catholic Church, but my mother’s brand of Catholicism was decidedly progressive, and my education secular. My family spoke frankly about the benefits and importance of birth control. I remember sex ed mostly as an endless succession of black-and-white line drawings that I had to label meticulously with a ballpoint pen, an education stripped of its often-attendant moralizing. I was enrolled in catechism classes my entire adolescence, but the only time I ever remember sex being discussed was when our teenaged group leader told us there was no way Mary and Joseph didn’t “knock boots” at least once. This scandalized me at the time, I will admit, and while our daring instructor was later relieved of his job, it was not because he had told a bunch of seventh graders that there was no way that Mary was ever-virgin. No, if there is anything from this film that I can relate to totally and completely it is fear, the fear of one’s own body. Of what it does and what can be done to it.
After my students finished watching the film, I assigned them an essay by the cultural critic Vivian Sobchack, hoping it would better frame our discussion. We discussed what Sobchack called “the Postmorbid Condition,” which she defines as a state of alienation from one’s own body due to ever-increasing technological advancements. Sobchack posits that film, and film violence, highlight the fragility of one’s own body against the grinding gears and whirring mechanism of machinery. It’s increasingly hard not to feel one’s own vulnerability as a body in the world, among the creeping contagion of radiation, of contamination that lives in the water, in the air, in the couch, in the milk.
Teeth draws a clear connection between the environment and Dawn’s “condition,” opening with a shot of two concrete cooling towers of a local nuclear power plant looming over Dawn’s childhood home. The music creaks ominously as smoke billows into the sky. The B-plot of the film concerns Dawn’s mother dying of cancer; in Dawn’s biology class, the teacher lectures about of evolution, mutation, adaptation. This introduces one of the film’s central questions: is Dawn an unfortunate mutation, the product of her polluted environment? Or has she reached some sort of evolutionary next level, adapting to an environment in which female bodies are constantly assaulted? Are we meant to see her vagina dentata as a kind of power? As a class, we were never able to reach a consensus. Or, as another student of mine so bluntly put it, “I don’t think anyone wants teeth in their vagina. I think they probably just don’t want to be raped.”
In Sobchack’s closing arguments about “The Postmorbid Condition” she speaks at length about pain; about how images of violence have been cut free of any consideration of physical pain, and how the increase of violent images has stripped violence of its meaning. There is plenty of violence in Teeth. This is, after all, a movie about vagina dentata in which several young men are castrated. In her discussion of violent images, Sobchack states that violence often cross over into absurdity. It becomes funny. We laugh at it. I’ll admit I laughed the first time I watched the scene in Teeth in which a gynecologist loses all five of his fingers and staggers around the room screaming, “It’s true! Vagina dentata! Vagina dentata!”
This dissonance between humor and violence has always been, for me, the most unsettling thing about the film. It’s not only my own laughter that disturbs me, but my inability to control my empathy, to know where to place it. When a second boy is castrated after an encounter with Dawn, doctors in an operating room prepare to reattach his penis. “Hardly seems worth it,” one of the doctor quips, and the rest of them laugh uproariously. This scene has always invoked, in me, an intense sense of pity. That this character is made so small in his moment of terror and pain.
For all of the ludicrousness of the plot, Teeth accomplishes a level of complexity that I don’t see in many other films. It inverts that sense of vulnerability, blurs it. There is violence in the movie, and this violence is sexualized, but it is men who are its victims. Even this designation, however, is slippery. Tobey, the only boy to actually die by castration, rapes Dawn. He forces himself on her after she repeatedly screams at him to stop. The second boy to lose his penis does so in a consensual sexual encounter with Dawn, but he informs her, while they are having sex for the second time, that he seduced her to win a bet with his friends. The third and final time that a man is castrated in the movie, Dawn initiates the encounter as an act of revenge. The man is Dawn’s stepbrother, who has tormented her for years, and who ignored the sounds of Dawn’s mother dying in the next room because he was having sex with his girlfriend.
All of the men in the film are predatory—one an unequivocal rapist—which is why I feel so unsettled by my empathy for them. But perhaps it is because I am not as inured towards depictions of violence as Sobchack would have me believe. Perhaps I cannot watch a body in pain without feeling pity for it.
“Do they deserve it?” is not the most interesting question to pose, to myself or to others, nor does it have an easy answer. Instead, every semester I taught this film, I asked my students who they thought the monster in the movie was. Are the boys monsters? Some are more monstrous than others, but where do you draw the line? Is the monster Dawn? Teeth attempts to satirize and ultimately debunk the message that all women are monsters, even as it uses an actual fanged vagina to do so. The film’s ending hints that Dawn has come to fully embrace her “powers” as they are, or at least, has come to acknowledge their currency. In the final scene of the film, she gets into the car of a much older man who leers sickeningly at her. You hear the ominous click of the door lock as Dawn swings her head to the camera and grins.
Writer Kelly Link once stated in an interview, “I’m no longer watching television in which middle-aged men figure out how to be men. I’d rather watch shows about teenaged girls figuring out what it means to be a monster.” Link is referring specifically to the TV show The Vampire Diaries (vampires, like vagina dentata, being another forceful cultural symbol of deadly sexuality). I can understand this sentiment, I can. But at least as it to pertains to Teeth and its logistics, I have always found Dawn’s character arc quite tragic. For Dawn to exert her punishing power over predatory men she actually has to engage in sex with them. Learning to “be a monster,” in this case means engaging repeatedly in what has wounded you. I imagine that might feel vindicating for a while, but what happens after all the rage burns out?
I think back often to my student’s comment—that no one wants teeth in their vagina, they want not to need those teeth. It’s telling that we applaud Dawn’s transformation as empowerment anyway. It reminds me that the ongoing fight for equality is often met with outrage and resentment and fear, as if what’s being asked for isn’t dignity and equal protection under the law, but the ability to oppress in turn, to do violence back. Too often, this is the only way we can conceive of power, perhaps because too few of us understand that sometimes power means to live free of fear, to be allowed to be human, to be weak and not be destroyed for it. Maybe those of us who do not understand this as power cannot do so because we already possess it. It shapes the way we experience the world, it enables us to survive, but is also invisible to us. This is why, in the end, I don’t want Dawn to be a monster. I want her to live in a world in which she doesn’t have to be a monster in the first place.